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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbyterian Distinctives
January 16, 2014

This week I encountered yet again an assertion that I’ve heard in many versions over the years: Conservative Baptists (it could be Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics – you fill in any denomination name, doesn’t matter which) have more in common with conservative Presbyterians than conservatives of either denomination have with progressive members of their own denominations. I’ve heard similar claims in other regards, like churches with younger members or of particular ethnic heritage hold more in common across denominational lines than they do with congregations in their own denomination with different demographics. Beneath these assertions lies an assumption that being Presbyterian (or part of any other tradition) is a less significant identity marker than our political views, social locations, cultural preferences or demographic particularities.

Alas, the church has bought this nonsense all too readily. I call it “nonsense” partly to be provocative, but partly because I really do believe it to be fundamentally misguided. To assert that such differences define us more deeply than our shared heritage is as wrong as it is an affront to our forebears. To take such thinking just a small step farther, would I seriously consider that I have more in common with any Steelers fan than I do with a Presbyterian from Cleveland who unfortunately pulls for the Browns? (OK, now I’m meddling.)

The church shows that it buys this nonsense when it shapes its ministry and mission more by appealing to a particular slice of society it wants to attract than by seeking to embody faithfully its tradition amid an ever-changing world. It betrays such a view when it presumes that members and congregations will prosper best when clustered around similar social, demographic, political, or cultural identifiers. Such thinking is evident when we retreat into enclaves of “like-minded” folk rather than embracing the hard work of nurturing relationships with faithful friends who challenge our comfortable orthodoxies.

I like asking both prospective and current church members what has led them to affiliate with their particular congregations. I often hear them mention a sense of welcome, the presence of friends, programs that meet felt needs, the music, or the preaching. Far less often I hear about the church’s denominational affiliation or theological heritage. At this point the ball is cued up perfectly for me to launch a class on “Presbyterian 101” – what it means to be Presbyterian, and why it matters.

I have found that few Presbyterians can confidently identify Presbyterian distinctives with clarity. They speak easily about the differences between contemporary and traditional worship (and why they prefer one over the other). They can easily place their congregation on the political spectrum – conservative, moderate, or progressive. But ask about what makes their church distinctively “Presbyterian” and a deer-in-the-headlights look suddenly appears.

And so I will offer in this space over the coming weeks a series on Presbyterian distinctives. I hope it will prove helpful for new members and long-timers alike. Perhaps it can be a resource for training teachers and church officers.

I firmly believe that our identity as Presbyterians is a more significant marker for us than many of the other factors mentioned in the paragraphs above. Yet please hear that I am not suggesting that being Presbyterian is better than being Baptist or Methodist or Catholic or Pentecostal. We hold some bedrock commitments in common with all who proclaim Jesus as Lord, and those are our most important commitments of all. But Presbyterians also have a number of historical and theological distinctives that give particular shape to our identity, things deeper and more abiding than the shifting political convictions or cultural preferences over which we often differ. These distinctives are wonderful gifts of God given to us through our forebears, and only as we understand and embrace them well shall we be able to transmit them faithfully to future generations. We can be wise stewards of our best treasures only if we know specifically what gives them true value.

I encourage you to circulate these upcoming letters in your congregation, and use them as springboards to conversations about the gifts, responsibilities, and challenges of being followers of Jesus who are also “Presbyterian.”

Grateful for our heritage,     

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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